The Events of 1915 in Eastern Anatolia in the Context of Britain’s Great War on the Ottoman Empire.


A Talk given by Dr. Patrick Walsh at the London School of Economics on February 15th 2013

The events that occurred in Eastern Anatolia in 1915 should be located in a broader context than simply that of Turk against Armenian. Both Turks and Armenians were, after all, actors in a much wider drama that was unfolding in the world and any judgement about their actions can only be made with the knowledge that they were caught up in circumstances that were not of their choosing and were largely beyond their control.

Even Atatürk was an actor in this great drama imposed from outside by the Imperialist Powers – although he succeeded in assuming a leading role in it and writing a different ending to the script that was intended for the Turks by its authors.

The context of what happened to the Armenians in 1915 is left out of consideration in most discussions. An event can only be understood in relation to other events in history within the context of cause and effect. If other events are extracted then historical understanding is impossible. But it seems that this is the objective of people who wish to replace historical understanding with legal argument in deciding about such events.

Geoffrey Robertson QC wishes for historians to stop discussing the Armenian tragedy altogether. He recently declared in Yerevan that: “The historians have completed their mission, now it is the time for judges, who will demand proper punishment for guilt and compensation for the Genocide victims. It is no longer a subject of historians but judges.”  And in the ‘New Statesman’ of 10th December 2009 Robertson made it clear that the case, for him, is already closed: “… genocide is a matter for legal judgment, not a matter for historians, and there is no dispute about the Armenian genocide among legal scholars.” 

Robertson is an advocate of ‘International Law.’ At the end of the day law is policy. It is, in effect, the foreign policy of the big states in the world. By reducing the event of ‘genocide’ to law one is making it into a subjective judgement of the big states and a weapon of foreign policy to gain leverage on other states. The nature of an event and whether or not it constitutes ‘genocide’ is therefore rendered incapable of being measured in any objective way. In such circumstances it is reduced to a mere slogan.

I do not share Robertson’s faith in International Law. It seems to me to be applied only when it suits the Western Powers and forgotten about when it does not. It is overwhelmingly used to keep the ‘lesser states’ of Africa and Asia in order and to subvert their sovereignty and independence when the West sees it in its interest to do so.

International Law is applied to the ‘lesser states’ by the ‘superior’ states who appear to be above it themselves. In many ways it is the old ‘civilizing’ mission of Imperialism in a new guise of ‘ethical foreign policy’.

Something that is so partially and inconsistently applied cannot be taken seriously as having moral credibility. And if you take this kind of law seriously at all it is surely debased through its arbitrary application. So I prefer to trust in the historians.

What constitutes ‘genocide’ has, therefore, become a subjective matter – indeed, a matter for policy about whether it would be in the interests of the dominant states in the world whether some event should be termed ‘genocide’ or not for political advantage. And it is being ruled out as a matter of historical fact or a subject for historical investigation.

Reorientation of British Foreign Policy

First of all, let us make no mistake about the single most important event that made what happened in Eastern Anatolia a possibility – the 1907 agreement between England and Russia that prepared the way for the Great War of destruction on Germany and the Ottoman Empire.

For England the war on Ottoman Turkey, which resulted in the Armenian massacres, came about from a revolutionary change of policy at the start of the 20th century. England had acted as an ally of the Ottoman Empire for most of the century before the Great War when Britain was determined to preserve the Ottoman State as a giant buffer zone between its Indian Empire and the expanding Russian Empire. It was part of what was known as the ‘Great Game’ in England that ‘the Russians should not have Constantinople’ and the warm water port and access to the Mediterranean that this would have given them.

What completely changed British relations with Ottoman Turkey was the emergence of Germany as a serious commercial rival around the end of the 19th century. Britain had since 1688 practiced a ‘Balance of Power’ policy with regard to Europe. For centuries it had built its empire by keeping Europe divided and by giving military assistance to the lesser powers against any power that might be emerging on the continent. Then, whilst Europe was preoccupied with war England was able to get on with its business of conquering the rest of the world. It had the great advantage of being an island and therefore it could meddle with Europe and then retire from the continental battlefield and let others continue the fighting when enough had been gained. Its chief weapon of war, its Senior Service, was the Royal Navy, which established and controlled the world market for it. When the continent of Europe was at war the Royal Navy took over markets established elsewhere by the other European powers and in this way the British Empire went from strength to strength, both economically and in terms of expansion.

During the 19th century Britain’s traditional enemy in Europe had been France and her traditional rival in Asia was Russia. However, in the early years of the 20th century England gradually came to the conclusion that Germany was the coming power to be opposed. Therefore, it was decided to overturn the foreign policy of a century and to establish alliances with England’s traditional enemies, France and Russia, so that Germany could be encircled and then when war came about Britain would join the conflict and destroy Germany as a commercial rival. The alliance that Britain entered into with Russia in 1907, therefore, was the single most important event that made a British war on Ottoman Turkey inevitable.

This is where Russia came into the equation. As I have said, Britain was an island nation and it was primarily a sea power. It did not have a large army and it had been opposed to military conscription. It would have been impossible for Britain to have defeated Germany by itself. Therefore, it needed the large French army and the even larger Russian Army to do most of the fighting on the continent for it. The Russian Army was particularly important and it was described in England as a ‘steamroller’ that would roll all the way to Berlin, crushing German resistance by its sheer weight of numbers.

The problem for Britain was that the Russians (unlike the French who wanted to recapture Alsace/Lorraine after their loss to the Germans in 1871) had little real reason to fight Germany. Therefore, something had to be promised to the Czar for his help in destroying Germany. That something was his heart’s desire, Constantinople.

That fact should always be borne in mind when people suggest that Turkey brought the war on itself. The fact of the matter was that in order to defeat Germany Britain had to promise Constantinople to Russia and in order for the Russians to get Constantinople there had to be a war on Turkey.

Turkish historians are not alone in having overlooked the role of the famous British statesman, Maurice Hankey in these events. Hankey conducted extensive spying operations on behalf of Royal Naval Intelligence in the summer of 1907 based on the contingency that Britain would soon be at war with Germany and Turkey.

Hankey and his colleagues scrutinized the harbours and naval defences of the Ottoman Empire from Syria, through to Smyrna and Istanbul, up to Trabzon on the Black Sea. He surveyed, in particular, the coastal defences of the Dardanelles with an amphibious landing at Gallipoli in mind, to follow up a report of the Committee of Imperial Defence entitled ‘The Possibility of a Joint Naval and Military Attack upon the Dardanelles’ which had been produced in December 1906. And it was Hankey as Secretary to the CID who first proposed to the British War Cabinet in December 1914 that the pre-war plans should be put into operation as soon as possible.

The alliance with Russia was obviously the main factor that spelled trouble for the Ottoman Empire. But it was not the only factor that encouraged Britain to overturn her traditional foreign policy.

Britain began to show an increasingly aggressive attitude in relation to Istanbul as Germany showed interest in the Ottoman Empire. What worried Britain about the German involvement with the Ottoman Empire was that it was not the parasitic relationship of the other Imperialist powers. The German objective seems to have been to rejuvenate and modernize the Ottoman Empire, partly through the Berlin-Baghdad Railway, in exchange for commercial rights there. England and Russia had seen the Ottoman Empire as the ‘sick man of Europe’ and they had been waiting around for his death but now they looked on as Germany threatened to revive the ‘sick man’, and dash their dreams of conquest.

This great reorientation of British foreign policy had serious consequences for not only the Ottoman Turks but also for the Armenians. Prior to 1907 it was the Russians alone who wished to exploit the Armenians for political ends and the Armenians always had to consider the likelihood that if they rose in revolt Britain would restrain the Russians from taking advantage of the situation – and any uprising would be crushed without foreign help. The Russians complained that they were stopped in assisting the Armenians because of the Cyprus Convention of 1878 between Britain and the Ottoman Sultan. This guaranteed a British war on Russia if the Czar moved into Ottoman territory in return for Cyprus being occupied by Britain.

But this all changed in 1907. Under the Anglo-Russian Treaty of 1907 England and Russia agreed an immediate partition of Persia between them and envisaged a future partition of the Ottoman Empire in which the eastern provinces would go to Russia and Mesopotamia would go to Great Britain. Later, once Russia had shown its commitment to the war on Germany, in the secret Constantinople agreement of March 1915, the Ottoman capital which the British described as ‘the greatest prize of the war’ was awarded formally to the Czar.

Russian annexation of the eastern Ottoman provinces became the common program of Great Britain and Russia alike. (The fact must be emphasized that there has never been any Russian population in these provinces and that the Armenians constituted Russia’s only ground for intervention and eventual annexation.)

The pre-War Armenian revolts illustrate this point very well. In 1894-6 The Armenian nationalists believed they had got signals that the intervention of the Great Powers would take place if they could provoke the Ottomans into a harsh reaction. They attempted to do this but found that Britain had not changed its position at this point and Russia, therefore, could not act. In 1909 in Adana there were further raised expectations of foreign intervention amongst Armenian groups. However, Britain needed the preservation of the Ottoman Empire until Russia was prepared to advance against Germany in a European war. The result was disaster for the Armenians after they had initiated killings in the hope of foreign intervention only to be left to face the consequences of their actions from their neighbours, alone.

By 1914-5 England was in alliance with the Czar and all restraint was removed from Russia and the Armenian nationalists. Mayhem and mutual killings were instigated in the Ottoman Empire by the Entente Powers to bring about its collapse and to facilitate the absorption of its parts into the empires of Britain, France and Russia. In a general war situation which threatened the very existence of the State in which the Armenians lived and which forced them to choose between it and their deliverance by the Great Powers catastrophe for either them or for local Moslems was always going to be the most likely outcome.

Position of the Armenians

As I have said, the context is all-important.  The Russians and the other Entente Powers had every interest in stirring up Armenian rebellion to further their war effort while the Ottomans had every interest in preserving good relations with the Armenians.  Sean McMeekin’s book ‘The Russian origins of the First World War’ describes a 1908 Russian General Staff memorandum expressly specifying that ‘agents from the Christian population’ would cut off rail lines to Constantinople… whereupon native Christians would ‘burn down all the wooden bridges spanning the Golden Horn and set fire to Stamboul’. McMeekin comments: “A more explicit blueprint for using Armenians (and other Ottoman Christians) as a fifth column for an invading Russian army could scarcely be imagined.” (p.146)

Intention is a very important element in judging the nature of an event. The Ottomans had no objective interest in creating an Armenian ‘genocide’.  Their interest lay in maintaining the Armenians as a loyal and functional community within the Ottoman State and the C.U.P. would undoubtedly have preferred it if the Armenians had remained that way.

The breakdown in Ottoman State infrastructure and authority caused by the British blockade and by the invading Allied armies was the major factor in turning the position of Armenians and other Christian groups from one of mainstays of the commercial infrastructure of the Ottoman Empire and “the loyal community” into a problematic element within it. And since the objective of the Allies was the destruction of the commercial life of the Ottoman State through invasion and blockade what future, indeed, had the Armenians in it?

Lately I came across a speech by T.P. O’Connor made in the House of Commons during the debate on the Treaty of Lausanne. O’Connor was one of the last remaining pro-Imperialist Irish MPs left in the British Parliament after the Irish Party had been smashed by Sinn Fein in the 1918 General Election. He made an impassioned plea on behalf of the establishment of an Armenian state in Anatolia, which, he said, had been abandoned in the Treaty signed by the British Empire with the resurgent Turks.

The bulk of O’Connor’s speech is taken up with quotations expressing British support for the Armenians during the war and detailing the betrayal of the Armenians by the Entente after it. However O’Connor also credits the Armenians with having played a vital role in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, despite attempts by the Turks to gain their loyalty. It is interesting in relation to the matter of context. O’Connor said:

 “Let us trace what happened to the Armenians during the War. Turkey was in a tight place. She made every effort to obtain the support, or at least the quiescence, of the Armenians. She offered them autonomy when assembled at a National Congress in 1914. She applied the condition that the Armenians should join Turkey in carrying on the War against the Allies. The offer of autonomy was, of course, very attractive, but the Armenians declined to accept it… Not only did the Armenians refuse this insidious offer, but they actually sent 200,000 Armenian soldiers to fight the battle of Russia, then one of our Allies, and it was their splendid resistance, when The Russian army broke down, to the Turks in the Caucasus which helped us finally to win the War. I believe I am right in saying that nearly 200,000 Armenian soldiers lost their lives fighting for the Allies during the War. If it makes no appeal to our humanity, I think that enormous sacrifice in face of immense temptations gives the Armenians a supreme right to our gratitude…” (House of Commons Debates, 28 March 1923)

 As O’Connor states whilst the Ottomans attempted to retain the loyalty and service of the Armenians with concessions the Entente Powers sought to use them in their destruction of the Ottoman State. And when the Armenians were no longer useful and Atatürk had established Turkey as a power to be reckoned with, the Entente just left them high and dry.

Unfortunately for the Armenians, they, like other peoples in strategically important areas during 1914-18 found themselves being used as pawns in a new ‘Great Game.’ After being encouraged to insurgency and to try to form themselves into a national entity (that was never a practicality given their dispersion across Ottoman territories) they were quickly discarded and forgotten when their interests no longer coincided with those of their Great Power sponsors.

Edward Frederick Knight, the famous journalist from ‘The Times’ of London wrote in 1910: “Armenia is now but a geographical expression, and ancient Armenia has been partitioned between Turkey, Russia, and Persia. The Armenians in Turkish Armenia are vastly outnumbered by the Moslem population; and the creation of an independent Armenian principality, desired by a section of the revolutionists, was obviously an impracticable scheme. The more sensible Armenians realised that the only alternative for the rule of Turkey was that of Russia, and the experience of their brethren across the border had proved to them that, of the two, the rule of Turkey was to be preferred; for under it they enjoyed a measure of racial autonomy and various privileges — much restricted… which the Russian Government, ever bent on the Russianisation of the nationalities subject to it, would certainly have denied to them.” (‘The Awakening of Turkey’, p.80)

The Armenian nationalists relied upon external forces as the only means of creating an Armenian state within Ottoman territories. This was because they were a relatively small minority in Eastern Anatolia, constituting only about 1 in 6 of the population of the Ottoman lands they claimed. Only through outside help from a Great Power and extensive ethnic cleansing of their Moslem neighbours could they achieve their nationalist objective.

The two main uses that Britain had for the Armenians were: firstly, to encourage American participation in the war and secondly, to cultivate and construct a case against the Ottomans in order to justify the incorporation of Moslem lands into the British Empire after the war.

These were the primary interests of Britain in them and not their well-being or that they should be governed well. That can be seen in the way Britain failed to press the Armenian case after they had acquired Mesopotamia and Palestine and how they put the Blue Book (Lord Bryce and Arnold Toynbee’s account of the ‘Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire’) back on the shelf, perhaps for use on a future day.

After the Great War Britain had it in her power to bring about an Armenian state and to try those it had accused and detained in connection with the deaths of Armenians. But, despite attempting many things in the world that were immensely more difficult at the time it decided not to follow through with these two measures, as if it did not take the claims it made against the Turks as seriously as it pretended to, during the war.

Genocide and extermination

The Armenians did not possess land or resources required by the Ottoman Turks for any colonial programme. The major area in which they lived was mainly of interest to the Ottomans because it contained substantial numbers of Turkish and Kurdish Moslems. This can be compared with cases in other places in the world where natives were in possession of territory which Britain and the other Imperial powers required for their empires.  I am thinking of North America and Australia, particularly.

The policy of extermination of ‘inferior’ races that Britain carried out in the name of progress was openly proclaimed by Charles Dilke and many other important Imperial writers in the 19th Century. Dilke stated frankly and proudly in his immensely popular book ‘Greater Britain’ that the Anglo-Saxon race was the most effective genocidal force in world history: “The English everywhere attempt to introduce civilisation, or to modify that which exists, in a rough-and-ready manner which invariably ends in failure or ends in the destruction of the native race… A gradual extinction of the inferior races is not only a law of nature, but a blessing to mankind… The Anglo-Saxon is the only extirpating race on earth. Up to the commencement of the now inevitable destruction of the Red Indians of Central North America, of the Maoris, and of the Australians by the English Colonists, no numerous race had ever been blotted out by an invader.” (p.223.)

The word ‘extirpation’ is a much stronger word than the word ‘genocide.’ ‘Extirpation’ means the intentional and planned, total and utter destruction of a race. ‘Genocide,’ according to Article II of the 1948 Convention is a much wider legal concept under which practically all of the European nations could be charged for their activities between 1941 and 1946, when various peoples settled accounts with each other and vast amounts of ethnic cleansing and killing were done. But there does not seem to be any will to engage in such a process.

In effect, the word ‘genocide’ has meant the partial destruction of a people since ‘extirpated’ people no longer exist to commemorate their destruction.

Nothing like the ‘extirpation’ practiced by European colonialism is applicable to the Ottoman State in relation to the Armenians or any other minority within the territory of the Empire. In fact, the Ottomans were criticized by British writers for their easy-going tolerance of races which, it was suggested, was leading to the demise of their empire. The British Social Darwinists were, in particular, appalled at the way the Ottomans had inter-married and incorporated other races into the governing of their empire and had blended aspects of their cultures into the Ottoman mix. In those days of Empire the British believed in a distinct racial hierarchy and saw ‘race-mixing’ as an abomination and fatal to the ‘racial stock.’

Nationalism and War in the Near East’  by George Young, ‘A Diplomatist,’ edited by Lord Courtney of Penwith, and published by Oxford University Press in 1915 (at the time of the Armenian relocations) is a good example of this argument. The British and Ottoman Empires were seen as having entirely different notions of race and governing. It was argued that the British Empire was successful because it was founded on the principle of racial and religious distinction and hierarchy whereas the Ottomans played ‘fast and loose’ with these categories to the extent that, in the English biological view, they contravened the ‘laws of nature’, leading to an inevitable Ottoman extinction.

Arnold Toynbee in his famous work ‘Study of History’ argued that the Anglo-Saxon inclination toward ruthless extermination of other races was due to the inspiration that the savage Old Testament of the Christian Bible had on Protestant powers like England and America. He noted that Catholic Imperial powers, like Spain and Portugal, tended to try to convert subject races to Catholicism before inter-breeding with them. England rejected such a policy in the name of racial superiority and the preservation of a master race of Empire.

Such ideas, that were prevalent in the Anglo-Saxon notion of ‘progress,’ would have been seen as inexplicable to the Ottoman Turk.

A few years ago the British historian, A.J.P. Taylor reviewing a book about the Irish Famine of 1847/8 for the New Statesman (12.11.62), under the title ‘Genocide’ compared Ireland under British rule to one giant concentration camp, like Belsen. This analogy provoked a hostile reaction in England. However, the Liberal Government were simply doing in their policy what Dilke later praised by allowing the potato blight to get rid of the ‘human waste’ through famine. And in the same century Britain took to clearing an awful lot of territory in the world of its ‘human waste’ to create great waste spaces that the superior form of humanity – the Anglo-Saxon could colonize.

The long-term tendency of British policy in Ireland was genocidal from Elizabethan times. Of course, it was a failed genocide because it could not be sustained long enough to be fully effective. But there was nothing of this type of activity evident in Ottoman policy toward their minorities.

The point I am making is that if there was a racially genocidal spirit at hand in 1915 it was to be found on the opposing side to the Turks – amongst the Anglo-Saxons who had obliterated races across the world in the name of ‘progress’ and ‘civilisation’ and the creation of new great white settler nations, in the continents of America and Australasia.

Hitler may or may not have uttered the notorious question; “Who remembers the Armenians?” But the Armenians are remembered today to a much greater degree than the many races that perished as a result of the expansion of England across the globe. These races are now footnotes in history while the Armenians have had hundreds of books dedicated to them.

It was not those who killed the Armenians who inspired Hitler. The race he admired most and who he tried to emulate in the world was the Anglo-Saxon (The evidence for this is laid out most comprehensively in a book by the Armenian born Manuel Sarkisyanz entitled ‘Hitler’s English Inspirers’.)

After the war, when Atatürk had triumphed over the British, he was very generous to the enemy. But let us speak plainly here. Those who sailed into Gallipoli were representatives of the great genocidal nations of the world. The Turks surely would have seen what these ‘extirpating’ nations had done across the world to native peoples they had conquered and could have expected the same to be done to them. Those who invaded from the East had been responsible for the clearing of more than a million Caucasian Moslems within living memory. And I have read many British accounts from the period that speculated about what would happen if the Turks ‘disappeared’ without any concern for what would happen to the inhabitants of the State in such an event.

So who knows what might have happened to the Turks if the Czarist State had not collapsed in 1917 and Atatürk had not seen off the British and their allies in 1922.

The use of the word ‘genocide’ with regard to what happened to the Armenians during the Great War is an attempt to connect Turkey with Nazi Germany and what it did to the Jews. However, a much better analogy would be what happened on the Eastern Front during the Second World War when different groups of people became destabilized by the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Here terrible things were done as state authority began to collapse, society began to return to its elements and people struggled for mere survival in the circumstances.

In 1915 the Russian and British invasions of the Ottoman Empire had a similar effect. The Russians and British invasions raised expectations so that some were willing to exact retribution on people they had grievances against and, in turn, those people exacted revenge on them. No one quite knew under whose authority they would exist when the war was over and therefore all restraint was removed on behaviour. It was under these circumstances and in this context that the relocation of Armenians took place and the mass killings of both Christian and Moslem peoples.

The problem of Nationalism

Attributing intention – as opposed to discovering actual intention – seems to take a large part in deciding what constitutes a ‘genocide’ these days and this seems to count more than actual deeds in determining what is ‘genocide’.

The cultivation of nationalism was a British Liberal tactic used to break up multi-national Empires of rival powers in the nineteenth century. It worked by sowing the seeds and cultivating the harvest of nationalism in them – whilst denying and repressing it closer to home. In this way Britain sought to undermine enemies or states it saw as rivals by destabilizing them through their ‘national’ minorities – whilst doing everything to repress and subdue minorities within their own Empire, of course – as they did in Ireland.

So the clearance of Armenians from Eastern Anatolia should have been seen, from the British perspective, as a ‘progressive’ development, since it was the culmination of the general process that England encouraged with regard to the Ottoman territories and elsewhere in the world. The responsibility for what happened to the Armenians and the other minorities that existed relatively peacefully within the Ottoman Empire for centuries must be placed, therefore, primarily at the hands of those who attempted to destabilize and ultimately destroy the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire.

The importation of nationalism into the Ottoman Empire for the purposes of weakening it and gaining leverage for the Great Powers there is very much at the root of what happened to the Armenians.

Nationalism was a most unsuitable thing to promote in the region covered by the Ottoman Empire where a great patch-work of peoples were inter-mingled and were inter-dependent. Its promotion in the region by the Entente powers was as disastrous for the many Moslem communities of the Balkans and the Caucasus, who were driven from their homes of centuries, as it was for Christians caught up in the inevitable consequences of the simplifying process it ultimately encouraged.

The catastrophic effect of the Balkan Wars on the Ottoman Empire are often absent from Western accounts of this period. These, beginning in the time of Gladstone, sought to focus on Ottoman ‘atrocities’ against subject peoples, particularly Christians, and ignored the widespread ethnic cleansing and genocide that was practised on Moslems by the Balkan Christians and against each other once the Ottoman State began to disintegrate and after when the Turks had gone.

The Ottoman Empire had been a tolerant multi-ethnic Empire for hundreds of years, in which different races and religions had lived side-by-side in comparative peace and harmony. For instance, alone out of all the states in Europe at the time, the Ottomans accepted the entry and settlement of Jewish refugees fleeing from persecution so that these people could contribute their talents to the commercial life of the Empire.

As a result, the Ottoman Empire became the most successful example of collaboration between different peoples in history. This collaboration was sometimes accomplished through bribery, corruption, dealing, trade-offs and the occasional massacre (that encouraged the settlement of disputes between the various peoples before they became full scale wars). But from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries peoples of diverse races and religions intermingled contentedly and successfully under Ottoman administrations and even the Balkans became a relatively peaceful area.

If there was antagonism between Christian and Moslem in the region it was primarily the result of the Russian Imperial expansionism of the previous three centuries which had seen Tatars, Circassians and Abazians driven from their lands into the Ottoman territories. Armenians took the place of Moslems in the Erivan Khanate in what is modern day Armenia. During the 19th Century the vast ethnic cleansing of Moslems in the Caucuses by Russia and in the Balkan Wars (1912/13) by the emerging Christian nations set off a wave of inter-ethnic violence and population movements that set a pattern for the history of these regions during the 20th Century.

Raphael Lemkin, who Geoffrey Robertson describes as ‘the legal architect’ of the UN Genocide Convention, interestingly attempted to categorize the phases of Genocide: “Genocide has two phases: one, the destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor.” (‘Axis Rule’, p.78)

The Ottomans never attempted anything like this in relation to the subject races of the Empire. The Millet system did not even encourage assimilation and provided for the maximum expression of each community’s ‘national pattern’ – in great contrast to British Imperialism. It would not be going too far to suggest that there is a connection between what happened to the Armenian community in Anatolia in 1915 and what was done to the Moslems of the former regions of Ottoman Empire that were conquered by Christian powers in the years before and during the Great War.

If the Balkan Wars had one great effect on the Ottoman Empire and its Moslem inhabitants it was to begin to shatter the long-held faith in multi-ethnic communities existing together in mutual benefit that had characterised of the Empire for centuries. And the influx of large numbers of Moslem refugees amongst the Christian communities within the Ottoman Empire must surely have had serious consequences for public order as soon as Anatolia itself was threatened by the Western powers and state authority removed. They would have feared the worse for themselves and their families and be determined it would not happen again.

There would inevitably have been a gradual loss of faith in the multi-ethnic principles of the Ottoman Empire after the experience of the Balkan Wars. We know that some deputies in Istanbul called for a clean break with the Empire’s Imperial past advocating a withdrawal from territories that were not predominantly Turkish and a future reliance on the Moslem people of the Anatolian heartland as the one and only trusted basis of the nation. Such sentiment began to be expressed in publications that took the Western view that the Ottoman Empire, not being based on national principles, would collapse like a house of cards. This development is sometimes called ‘Turkification’ by those wishing to attach the label of ‘genocide’ to what happened in Eastern Anatolia.

In the course of thinking about this issue I read the QC Geoffrey Robinson’s Opinion; ‘Was there an Armenian Genocide?’ Robinson knows that intent is very important in legal matters and tries to suggest that the Young Turks “developed the kind of race supremacy theories that are particularly associated with a build-up to genocide. For example, the racist idea that Turanian nationality was a badge of superiority… public sub-humanising of minority groups… extreme nationalist fervour, demanding a ‘warrior nation’ to prevent the decay of the Turkish race…” (p.15)

Robinson is more accurately describing the characteristics and ideology of British Imperialism in the nineteenth and twentieth century than he is the attitudes of the Ottomans to the peoples they governed. For instance, Karl Pearson, a Professor of Mathematics at this (London) University gave a famous lecture in 1907 about the ‘superiority of the Aryan race’ and the only ‘healthy’ option facing it: “that he should go and completely drive out the inferior race. That is what the white man has done in North America… The Australian nation is another case of a great civilisation supplanting a lower race.” (National Eugenics, Robert Boyle Lecture, 1907)

Robinson can present no evidence of a significant racialist body of writings that inspired and justified a programme of genocide like that of the English Social Darwinists in the late 19th Century. It is also clear that the Ottoman State did not actively pursue a policy of religious homogeneity in 1915. Events from then to 1923 certainly resulted in the heterogeneous Ottoman State giving way to the largely homogeneous Turkish Republic. But this was due to circumstance more than anything else.

In 1915 the Ottoman Empire was collapsing under the weight of problems that came to it from Europe and the C.U.P. looked for solutions to its predicament in that direction too. It had been a multi-ethnic state based on a healthy disregard for any notions of racial hierarchy. But what was being imposed upon it from the West, in the name of ‘progress’, was the requirement that society should be based on the nation state rather than a multiethnic/religious combination, with as much racial homogeneity as possible.

If some Ottomans began to lose faith in the multi-ethnic character of their Empire this was a consequence of a process instigated by Liberal Britain and Tsarist Russia in order to destabilize the Ottoman Empire. If a small minority of writers succumbed to British Social Darwinist ideas of ‘progress and civilisation’ then were they not merely coming up to the benchmark set and propagated successfully by British Imperialism? However, the continuation of the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire did not require a genocidal policy on the part of the Ottomans but the establishment of a nationalist Armenian state in Anatolia did.

This was because, unlike the Greeks and Bulgarians in the old Balkan provinces of Ottoman Europe who possessed majorities and many of the elements of nationhood, in none of the eastern provinces did the Armenians constitute a majority of the population. So whilst it was comparatively easy for Greeks and Bulgarians, once Western ideas of nationalism had reached them, to enlarge the autonomy of their own community institutions into territorial independence, any attempt to transfer Armenian autonomy from a religious to a territorial basis was quite another matter. The population of the modern eastern provinces was such that a restoration of the old Armenian Kingdom was impossible without overcoming six centuries of history through the construction of a homogeneous Armenian State. That would, of necessity, have involved the ethnic cleansing of large numbers of Turks and Kurds and almost certainly have required a policy of genocide against them to achieve a functional and stable Armenia (At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference the area claimed for an Armenian State was gigantic and included territory as far west as Sivas and Adana).

The Ottoman State was an established functional entity built upon the peace and stability of six centuries whereas an Armenian State in the region would have been inevitably a violent revolutionary affair. These types of constructions are rarely good for any minorities that might find them obstructing the necessary process of ‘nation building’. Turks, Kurds and other non-Armenian groups in the new state would have more than likely been exterminated or been driven out.

The question of intention is also relevant. There are instances in which population movements involving slaughter were planned and done intentionally.  For instance, the area bombing of Germany during WWII by the RAF had the intention of killing the German workforce. It was planned and refined with the intention of maximising working class casualties within dense population areas. Nagasaki & Hiroshima also come to mind.

There were also huge population movements conducted by the British in Malaya and Kenya during uprisings, about which little was known until recently. The Harvard professor, Caroline Elkins reveals in her book, ‘Britain’s Gulag: the Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, that the British detained almost the entire population of Kikuyu, one and a half million people, in camps and fortified villages. Thousands were beaten to death or died from malnutrition, typhoid, tuberculosis and dysentery. In many of the concentration camps, which were authorised at the highest level, almost all the children died. In the camps the inmates were tortured or used as slave labour and above the gates were slogans reminiscent of Auschwitz, such as “Labour and freedom.” The British did not bother with body counts, most victims were buried in unmarked graves and files were destroyed to cover up official direction. But tens of thousands died in the camps and during the relocations. Undoubtedly, the intention was to teach the support populations a lesson they would not forget in a hurry. And this was in the last half century, after the crimes of the Nazis had been exposed and people hung at Nuremburg.

It is not at all a convincing argument to suggest that the Ottomans had any intention or plan to wipe out the Armenians. There was a complete absence of such an ideal in Ottoman literature and the appliance of the basic historical principle of cause and effect suggests that the relocations were a practical response to an emergency situation, however badly they might have arguably been handled.

The Ottoman Response in Context

In the spring of 1915 three events precipitated and provoked the Armenian relocations: the Gallipoli landings by the British, a large ambush in Zeytun by Armenian insurgents which resulted in the deaths of 500 Ottoman soldiers on the main supply route into Syria and the Armenian rebellion at Van, which resulted in a massacre of Moslems. In April, Lord Bryce (of Blue Book fame) and the ‘Friends of Armenia’ in London made a widely publicised appeal for funds to equip Armenian volunteers fighting behind Turkish lines.

Any State will protect itself, if attacked, and these three events, which took place right across Ottoman Turkey, with the Russians on the advance into Anatolia, placed the State on an emergency footing of the highest order. Population movement was the primary defensive measure taken by the Ottoman State in relation to these events and the position of the Armenians. And most of the deaths occurred incidentally to this emergency measure.

The Russian reform campaign of 1913-14 had left little doubt at Istanbul that Russia aimed to annex Turkey’s six eastern provinces over which she had declared a proprietary interest – which was the usual preliminary to an Imperial power declaring a formal protectorate and annexing a region.

In the period between the outbreak of war in Europe and before the declarations of war on the Ottoman Empire the Russians had began arming the Armenians in preparation for invasion. The invading Russian armies brought with them Armenian groups armed with Allied weapons whose main purpose was to kill Turks and Kurds – which they proceeded to do. British and Russian agents circulated amongst the Armenians behind Turkish lines and provided them with weapons and money to enable them to create general disorder. In the Armenian capture of the city of Van and the general massacre of Moslems that followed Ottoman soldiers were diverted and prevented from reaching the front to fight the invading Russian forces. All these factors influenced the Ottomans to relocate the Armenian population from the area.

And along with the Armenian relocation there was also a relocation of up to 800,000 Moslems from the war-zone. But when the Ottoman authorities moved various peoples out of the war zones they became prey to other groups with scores to settle, such as the Kurds on the Armenians. Moslem civilians faced similar problems as they fled the attacking Russian armies only to be harassed by armed Armenian bands. And I have seen figures of up to 500,000 Moslems killed by Armenians, with extensive lists of names and modes of death recorded by the Ottoman authorities.

Even before 1915 Eastern Anatolia resembled a powder-keg. The Kurdish tribes were exceedingly well armed and virtually sovereign in the areas they roamed. They and the Christian townsmen, bought arms from the Russians and frequent skirmishes occurred between different groups. The Russians flirted with using the Kurds as well as the Armenians as instigators of chaos in the region prior to the war. Order was only maintained by an Ottoman presence between the various elements. If that presence were removed, as it inevitably would in war-time, it was predictable as to what would occur.

‘Relocations’ were the standard military response to guerrilla warfare waged behind the lines at the time. A decade and a half before the Turks relocated the Armenians the British ‘relocated’ Boer and African civilians away from the war-zone in the Transvaal – into concentration camps. This was not a defensive act conducted in response to encirclement, invasion and rebellion – as was the case in Anatolia in 1915 – but was done in the course of an aggressive expansionism aimed at neutralising a population resisting conquest.

The United States also conducted ‘relocations’ with regard to the native Americans putting them into reservations. And this was after multiple genocides were carried out over centuries on the American continent to establish the United States.

Britain conducted its ‘relocations’ and confinements in stable conditions, controlling the seas around Africa, under no pressure of blockade, with plentiful availability of food supplies, in a localised conflict fought in a gentlemanly way by their opponents. And yet they still managed to kill tens of thousands of Boer and African women and children in the process. It was called “methods of barbarism” at the time but I have never seen it called ‘genocide.’

The Armenians were not imprisoned by the Ottomans but resettled away from the war-zone. It is probable that the majority survived the forced migration into Syria and Armenians away from the war-zone in Istanbul, Izmir and Edirne were largely left alone. Therefore, the character of the Ottoman actions suggests they were more of a defensive emergency war measure than an aggressive colonial or extirpating campaign, practiced by the Imperial Powers.

The difference between what the British did in South Africa and what the Ottomans attempted to do in eastern Anatolia in 1915 was that the Ottomans were confronted by a much stronger enemy and assault on their state. The Armenian relocations were conducted in a situation of external invasion, blockade, starvation, inter-community killing and the general lawlessness of a collapsing state apparatus.

There was also a more recent example of relocations for the Ottomans to consider. In January 1915 the Russians and Armenians responded to an Ottoman offensive by massacring upwards of 50,000 Moslems in Kars and Ardahan. This was followed by extensive relocations of Moslems who were behind the Russian lines and in the potential war-zone.

Prof. Cicek’s book, ‘The Great War And The Forced Migration Of Armenians’ shows that the Ottomans did not have the intention of destroying the Armenian population in the course of moving those out of the front-line fighting areas and military security zones:  he shows that there were attempts to care for them in various ways. The Decree for the locations issued by the Ottoman Government insisted that those who were being moved should be cared for, protected and adequately fed and preparations were made to this effect. However, the war conditions imposed on the region by the Entente invasions and blockade ensured that such conditions could not be adequately met.

The whole relocation exercise was conducted under the watchful gaze of missionaries and diplomats sympathetic to the Armenians. The atrocity stories employed by the British propaganda departments are largely based on their (mainly) hearsay reports. To compare this with the Holocaust, where defenceless, peaceable Jews were relocated into Labour and Extermination Camps, with no foreign diplomats or missionaries to intercede for them, is quite unjustified.

The Christian Missions themselves have some responsibility for what happened to the Armenians. The Ottoman State was subject to a growing tide of missionary activity, particularly from the Anglo-sphere, before the Great War.  The mainly Protestant missionaries offered educational opportunities to Christians and a support base for emigrants. Moslems were impervious to conversion: it was the Christians that were susceptible.  This missionary work, which the tolerant Ottomans unwisely permitted, broke up the homogenous Armenian community (and other Christian traditions too).  In this situation, Nationalism gradually replaced Religion as a cohesive force in the Armenian communities. The missionaries also engendered dissatisfaction with the existing Ottoman arrangements.  The Christian missions had extra-territorial status and they acted in conjunction with their own governments and under their protection, outside the normal Ottoman governing system. All these factors tended toward the development of Armenian communities that were antagonistic toward their neighbours and undermined the existing social relationships that had preserved the peace for centuries.

There is a great double-standard at work here. Britain always wants to judge what happens elsewhere in the world in moral terms, quite apart from context. It judges what other countries do on grounds of high moral principle, but takes a very pragmatic view of its own conduct in the world.

That is why Turkey finds itself in the dock for the Armenian ‘genocide’ but Britain never seems to face any charges about its conduct in the world.

Hunger Wars and Starvation Blockades

The British blockade of the Ottoman Empire, which began even before the formal declaration of war, was carried out with the intention of starving Ottoman citizens to force them into surrender and encouraging a general collapse of Ottoman society into anarchy. A similar blockade was organised against neutral Greece to encourage regime change and her enlistment in the Allied ranks.

A significant component in the large numbers of deaths in Anatolia was the conditions brought about by the general lack of food in the region. This was largely caused by the military encirclement of the Ottoman Empire and the Royal Navy blockade organised in the seas around it.

It is difficult to ascertain exact statistics on the modes of deaths of victims in the Armenian tragedy. However, the effects of malnutrition and associated diseases are bound to have played a very large part. We are fairly certain that hundreds of thousands died in Syria and Lebanon during this period as British forces prevented food from being supplied from Egypt and Entente warships blockaded the coasts. Turkish soldiers in Mesopotamia and Palestine starved to death in their tens of thousands and the death toll from Typhus reached fifty per cent of the population at times. According to a recent study by Edward Erickson seven times as many Turkish soldiers died from illness than from wounds received in battle. In Eastern Anatolia where there was an absence of roads and railways transportation of food and medical supplies would have been very difficult, even if they were available.

Thousands of people moving around as refugees from the invading armies of Britain and Russia and the Royal Navy blockade, in chaotic conditions, with the transportation system collapsing, with bandits preying on them under the collapse of order, with the general shortage of food and with primitive sanitation conditions leading to famine, hunger and disease, inevitably resulted in a general reverse to a state of nature in much of the outlying areas of the Empire, particularly in Eastern Anatolia, the war zone between Russia and the Turks.

I have seen it argued that it was the neglect and incompetence of Ottoman authorities that were responsible for such high levels of deaths amongst its own soldiers, prisoners of war and the civilian populations within the blockaded area. However, it must be remembered that Germany suffered nearly a million deaths in some estimates from the starvation blockade organised against it by the Royal Navy. Germany was a highly organised society with great skills of improvisation that helped it to hold out against blockade for four years. However, it too failed and was ground down by the irresistible force of the Royal Navy.

Hunger and famine have been significant methods of British warfare for centuries. In the seventeenth century they were used by Crown forces to suppress Irish resistance in Ulster. In the nineteenth century during the Irish famine (which the Ottoman Sultan tried to alleviate with aid) at least a million of the population were left to die and more than a million forced out as a useful policy for weakening Ireland for conquest. The same was true of the famines in India presided over by Lord Curzon and others, not to mention what happened in Persia under the British occupation of 1917-19 (Dr. Mohammad Gholi Majd in ‘The Great Famine and Genocide in Persia, 1917-1919’ estimates that as much as 40% or 10 million of the population of Persia was wiped out because of starvation and the associated diseases when the British seized the country’s food supplies for its armies of occupation.)

Taking these considerations into account I cannot see how the Ottomans can be held wholly responsible for what happened in Eastern Anatolia. Those organising the invasions and blockade must surely have been aware of the effects of their war policy on the general population within the encircled area. It was designed to kill large numbers, regardless of race or religion, encourage the spread of disease, weaken the population and produce general disorder and conflict within the Ottoman State. And it accomplished all of these objectives.

Before the war considerable effort had been put into calculating the effects of blockading Germany on its civilian population. It had been openly speculated in the British press that not only would it lead to mass starvation, disease and social revolution but, in true Social Darwinist fashion, it would also weaken the German racial stock. It would be foolish to believe that any other eventuality would have been entertained in relation to the appliance of blockade to the much less developed state apparatus in the Ottoman lands.


The logical implication of all this is that if what happened to the Armenians in 1915 is to be described as ‘genocide’ we must look much wider for those responsible than just within the C.U.P. and Ottoman authorities directly responsible for relocating the Armenians. Firstly, there was the responsibility of the Anglo-French and Russian invasion forces whose arrival in May 1915 signalled that the destruction of the Ottoman Empire was a distinct probability. Secondly, there was the exportation from Europe of Social Darwinist ideas of race homogeneity as the ideal type for societies. This undermined the old heterogeneous Ottoman attitude toward race that had promoted ‘live and let live’ in the Empire. Thirdly, there was the promotion of nationalism from Europe in order to destabilise the Ottoman State and make multi-ethnic units impossible.

If the deaths of Armenians are seen as ‘genocide’ the powers that were most responsible for it were Britain and Russia (and to a lesser degree France). In the interests of destroying Germany and conquering the Ottoman territories they made the Ottoman State an impossible place for Armenians to live in the space of a few months after they had lived in it peacefully for centuries. If we are to talk of an Armenian ‘genocide’ and insist on an official apology we must put these countries in the dock first because without their actions it would never have happened.


Some Athol Books publications:

  • The Great War And The Forced Migration Of Armenians

by Prof. Dr. Kemal Çiçek

  • Forgotten Aspects Of Britain’s Great War On Turkey. 1914-24

by Dr. Pat Walsh

  • Remembering Gallipoli, President McAleese’s Great War Crusade

by Dr. Pat Walsh

  • Britain’s Great War, Pope Benedict’s Lost Peace: How Britain Blocked The Pope’s Peace Efforts Between 1915 And 1918 by Dr. Pat Walsh
  • The Rise And Fall Of Imperial Ireland. Redmondism In The Context Of Britain’s War Of Conquest Of South Africa And Its Great War On Germany, 1899-1916 by Dr. Pat Walsh
  • The Politics Of Pre-War Europe: The Catholic Bulletin on Peace, War And Neutrality, 1937-1939. Introduction: by Dr. Pat Walsh
  • Preposterous Paradoxes of Ambassador Morgenthau by Şükrü Server Aya

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